Wednesday, February 7, 2007
My Entry into Celluloid World
My Entry into celluloid world, came at an unexpected moment in an unexpected way.
Sivathasan who was into stage plays productions and through them made an acquaintance with me, ventured into movie making with Sengai Aliyan's "Vaadai Katru". He like a gentleman informed me in advance that I've no suitable character to play in that film. Lot of the who's who of the local film industry were mentioned. Gamini Fonseka, Sillaiyoor Selvarajan, A.Ragunathan.. list went on.
Accepting his explanation with gingerly touch, I waited on the side lines with my office work and occasional radio plays. But lurking in the back of my mind was the novel "Vaadai Katru", which I read as Veerakesari publication few years back. In fact I thought after reading this novel that it will be a best choice for a film. Incidentally, "Viruththasalam" was my favorite character. Siva told me that they are considering Gamini Fonseka to play that character. They got Premnath Moraes (a Tamil) from Sinhala Film industry to direct the film with the hope that they can get Gamini through their longstanding friendship. But they failed. Gamini has said no to the offer.
Now the battlefield was open. After considering several options, Siva and his selection committee (Yes, they had a selection committee) finally zeroed onto me. I was called in for a movie test (not to confuse with a makeup test) and to my great relief Premnath Moraes never asked me whether I can dance or fight or do horse riding. He just had a look at me and said OK. In later years, when I read in some newspaper columns, Premnath has worked with famous figures such as Vivian Leigh, Gregory Peck and Peter Finch from the West, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor from the East, I felt proud that he has selected me without any hesitation.
Some members of the selection committee (who were suppose to act too) left the scene after some disputes with the producer and two unexpected actors came in to fill the two warring Sammaddiyar (Fishing Group leaders) roles - Semiyon and Mariyathas. Pop Singer turned actor A.E. Manoharan and a science book writer cum Doctor K.Indrakumar were proposed to do those characters. Manoharan had some acting experience from his "Pasa Nila" days at Jaffna college. Whereas Indrakumar had no acting credits to boast about. But he too was very enthusiastic about the project and looked forward to our sojourn at Pesalai like all of us. Pesalai? If you have read the novel, you'll have this question in your mind.
"Pahiru" - wall of stones
Madda Kuthirai (Ponies)
Although Delft Island (Neduntheevu) is the actual backdrop of the novel, the writer had some disagreement with the locals regarding the content and to avoid any further infringement, producers looked for a similar location with Palmyra groves, Madda Kuthirai (Ponies) and Karai valai (a pattern of fishing where the nets with the harvest were pulled from the coast and not in the mid sea). Pesalai got the approval because with those elements, it was easily accessible from Colombo by train.
So, one fine day we all went and landed in Pesalai. Entire village was waiting for our arrival. Because vary rarely you will have a film shooting in your village in SriLanka, especially in a Tamil village. Siva accommodated us in two different places, Manoharan, Indrakumar and Premnath stayed in the only rest house in Pesalai, but being the Assistant Director of the film (Yes..By now I was given that title too)
I was offered to stay with them. I should have accepted it. I realized my mistake later, when the shooting started.
I selected to stay with all the other actors in a house and felt comfortable with them. Sivathasan brought a cook from Colombo along with us and gave him ample stock of provisions to prepare any tasty item or food variety, we preferred. Along with Rice and curry for lunch, our cook will make variety of items like Vadai, Pongal. Payasam, Mothakam as tiffens and again Idli, Uppuma, Thosai for dinner. No wonder I preferred to stay with them.
Main area of Pesalai ( shall we call it a town) was provided electricity from a generator and this service will be upto 9.30 P.M only. So after that I got petromax lamp lighted to prepare the everyday shooting schedule depending on the location and actors available. Real life Sammadiyar in Pesalai virtually owned that town area. He is the owner of the only Ice factory, only theatre, only Rest house etc. etc. He acted in our film too. Our actresses and their chaperons stayed in his house. Anantharani Rajaratnam and Chandrakala are the two main actresses involved in Pesalai shooting.
First day shooting started with the arrival of Mariyadas, a new person to come to this area to do seasonal fishing. Arrival of Koolakada, a Siberian crane signals the the start of the fishing season. So Koolakada and migratory fisherman are identified with each other in both the novel and film. So along with the sighting of Koolakada, Ponnu and her daughter notices the arrival of the newcomer to the island from their hut facing the beach. So first day with all the hustle and bustle, the shooting started. Ponnu (Jesuratnam) and his daughter (Anantharani) took several takes while three deep crowd surrounding the shooting spot, watching every nuances of film making. A.V.M.Vasagam was cranking the Camera under the direction of veteran Premnath Moraes, while K.M.Vasagar(from Radio Ceylon) was concentrating on dialogues delivery. Even when the director says OK, K.M will not approve it. He'll coach the actors again and again. By mid afternoon this was getting onto the nerves of the director. He declared silent war on the dialogue coach and thereafter K.M was sidelined. In fact a close associate of writer Sengai Aliyan, himself a writer Sembian Chelvan was entrusted with writing the film script initially. According to Sengai Aliyan, Sembian Chelvan did this and that is the script was submitted to the Film Corporation. But later on according to Sivathasan, K.M.Vasagar vetted the script with more filmier sense and thereby got the title as Script writer. There was an unpleasantness due to this controversy too. K.M.Vasagar was over enthusiastic at the start as usual but later on feeling that he was getting sidelined, kept himself away and never returned for the second schedule of shooting.
Viruthasalam is suppose to roam around riding the pony and hunt rabbits in the bushes. Before we left Colombo, Siva was looking for well trained Police horse to take along with us. Although I was reluctant considering the fall from that height, I was thrilled to ride a smart tall horse like M.G.R. (oops.. Not the horse I mean..) But Sengai Aliyan said no to the usage of horse and insisted on Madda Kuthirai (Ponies) On arrival at Pesalai, some local boys came to us and offered that they can find ponies for us. They may have heard about the story or may be they have read the novel, anyhow they knew that we are looking for ponies. When I asked them whether they can find me a pony trained and brought up in their homes. They laughed. They said those ponies cannot be kept at home or fed. It seems they prefer to roam around in the forest or in Palmyra groves eating as they like. Finally the boys said they will catch few of them and bring for our approval. Especially my approval. Following day early morning they brought about three ponies and I fell for a grey one. As Viruthasalam had to ride on the bare back , I went to the beach and started riding lessons along with my trainers(boys) and my pony. May be our ( Mine and Pony's)chemistry didn't match, every time I climbed on it's back, the pony started playing tantrums, jumping up and down trying his level best to push me down and of course succeeded at last. After doing so, it will run away into the Palmyra groves. Boys will run after it shouting. After about half an hour or so, they will bring it back and hand it over to me. With the chase and run it's skin will be shiny with sweat and my chance of riding will be still more difficult. After more falls in the beach sand and narrow escapes from getting trampled, I'll finish the training for the day. Pony will be given the freedom. The boys will give the promise to us that they will find that particular pony following day too. Even if they have brought a different pony as long it is grey in colour, myself or others would not have found out. But everyday they charged fee from the producer for tracing it. I wonder they may have kept it in their home and brought it every day. Even my pony may have played along with them. After all these actions and reactions, on the shooting day, where I had to trot across the beach to see the arrival of the newcomers from the main land, while I was seated on my pony, it stood still and cooperated with me. Thereafter I thought that it developed an attachment for me and except for few skirmishes, it behaved well until the end.
In the film, except for few occasions, in many of the scenes I was acting bare bodied and in due course got a nice tan. My character earned sympathy due to the twist of the story and many of the villagers started liking me. On an occasion, when I got sick and was not in the shooting spot, this news spread very fast around the village. In the evening after a full day rest, when I went out to buy some thing, an old lady selling grams in the small market, stopped and asked me " Son... How's Viruthasalam.. is he alright.. It's very sad " . She said that not knowing Viruthasalam without his usual gear and makeup is standing in front of her.
Viruthasalam with his Grandfather Ponnu
(Ramu- the Pony is in the background)
Many of the supporting characters were selected with my approval or on my insistance. At times I went far and near to seek my favorites to act in "Vaadai Katru". Since I saw "Kandy Arasan", a stage play from Jaffna, I became a great fan of Balathas, a native of Pasaiyoor and a Sammadiyar in real life. When the casting committee was on the look out for somebody to do heroine's father character, I suggested Balathas and just before the shooting, I personally went to Pasaiyoor and met him and put up my proposal. But unfortunately, as at that time he was very much committed to his own profession, he politely refused my offer. But if I do remember correct, he himself suggested Francis Jenam for that role. So, Francis Jenam, Sivapalan (from Jaffna courts), Dingiri, Sivaguru (comedians), all my colleagues from the stage play days in Jaffna, came into do supporting characters.
As the days went by the star-gazers may have lost interest and went on their way to do their regular duties, except for just passing glances. In reality now they have started to consider us and film shooting as part of their village. Nothing strange.. Nothing alien. When we were doing some sea faring sequences, the Sammadiyar gave us some boats and men to do them. In 'Karai Valai' fisherman goes out to the sea in the evening and set the nets in semi circle and bring back both the ends to the coast. There was a scene, where Mariyadas, the newcomer goes out to set the nets in the sea, he and his man went very far into the sea making us scared for their safety. D.Indrakumar was brave enough to do that scene so effectively and returned safely with his men (mixture of actors and real fishermen).
Following day early in the morning , we went to the coast to film the pulling of the net along with the harvest. The scene we were planning to do was Mariyadas getting a very good catch from the sea and Semyon getting jealous over this. So we were expecting at least a reasonably good catch but to the surprise of all of us, it was a fantastic catch almost breaking the net, overflowing into the sand. Mariyadas was dancing with over joy in the film, but you will notice the real Sammadiyar's happiness in the corner of the shot. Even the actual fishermen on the spot agreed that is the best catch for the season. But that was the last time, that Sammadiyar got the catch that big.
Viruthasalam and Nagammah
(Naan virumbira ore oru soththu intha veediliai than irukku)
There were many scenes, where I can play emotionally and I feel that I didn't over do them. That's always my preference. Under playing..Of course. Above scene is one of them, where I indirectly conveys my wish to marry Nagammah, my 'Machchal'and I will go great lenths to achieve it. Anatharani Rajaratnam(balendra) has been acting as my heroine in many radio plays including a serial titled "Valapiranthavarkal" written by famous novelist 'Ilankeeran'just before this shooting. So we had a rapport and did our characters with greater ease.
In the film, Nagammah falls for the Mariyadas Sammadiyar and loses herself when Ponnu is not at home. Viruthasalam returns from mainland(Jaffna) with Thali, Koorai etc with the idea of marrying Nagamma and encounter them (Nagamma and Mariyadas) coming out of the hut. During the shooting, I was surprised to face a situation where our director Premnath Moraes was giving a completely different setup from the original script or novel. Viruthasalam in the novel or the film script, always carries a spear in his hand. The spear and Viruthasalma are inseparable. Therefore in this situation, where his own 'intended bride' has cheated him, he raises the spear to attack Mariyadas and on seeing Nagammah pleading, he throws the spear and let them go. This should be the actual scenario according to the script. But before the shooting has started, Director told me to carry a knife instead of spear. I explained and almost argued with him, but he was adamant. To avoid an unpleasant situation, I gave up spear and took a knife (borrowed from somebody in the crowd). The rehearsal started. Pointing the knife at Mariyadas, I started delivering my dialoques. Like a flash, Mariyadas (Dr.Indrakumar) slapped me on my hands. As it was unexpected, it gave me nasty pain. Dropping the knife and shaking my hands, I looked at Director and said " what's happening.. in this situation can anybody slap ferocious Viruthasalam..?"
Director was firm on his stand. The explanation he gave was funny. Not funny to me at that moment. He said, "Mariyadas, a bigtime Sammadiyar should not bow down to a village ruffian like Viruthasalam and he can do whatever he likes" . I quietly told him that doesn't goes along with the actual story. He insisted and again I gave in. I realized somebody has brain washed him and told an entirely different interpretation of the script. This is where , I thought that I made a mistake in not staying with the director and others in the rest house in the first place. The shooting went on as they wanted.
Sengai Aliyan, the writer came to Pesalai just few days after the incident. During the shooting period, Sivathsan made a good decision to send the exposed film to Colombo every two weeks and got a rough copy printed and sent back. In Pesalai's only theatre, Director, Cameramen and Producer will view the copy and decide to reshoot if there are any mistakes. This was a good idea to save the money and time than coming back again to reshoot any necessary sequences. So as Sengai Aliyan, the author of the novel was too invited to view those finished scenes including the last mentioned. He was shocked to see Viruthasalam without his spear, taking up knife and getting hit on the hands by Mariyadas too. He told Sivathasan firmly, "Who gave permission to change my story. Nobody can challenge Viruthasalam like that. If you allow this change I will surely sue you all". He blasted everybody involved and stormed out. Sivathasan shaken by writer's outburst, approached Dr.Indrakumar and requested to reshoot that sequence with knife and hand slapping. But Indrakumar refused and Siva was in a dilemma. I assured him not to worry and taking few shots without Indrakumar managed to satisfy the writer as well as the readers of the novel.
Viruthasalam asking Mariyadas to leave
And finally on editing table, in the capacity of Assistant Director when I was helping Editor Ramanathan I made that scene agreeable to the original script. They used to say that M.G.R is a good editor. While shooting is in progress, he decides what are the shots he is going to use and shoots accordingly. Following his example, I just planned ahead how I'm going to have the scene arranged. I requested for an additional shot as Virutha throwing the knife into the ground with full fury. During editing, I advised Ramanathan to take out the shot of Mariyadas hitting Viruthasalam's hand. Thereafter shots were arranged like this -
1st shot: Viruthasalam pointing knife at Mariyadas
2nd shot: Nagamma pleading with Viruthasalam not to harm Mariyadas
3rd shot: Viruthasalam throwing the knife into the ground (That additional shot)
4th shot: Viruthasalam asking both of them to leave.
Thereby I saved the story, Viruthasalam's real character and settled Sivathasan's dilemma without hurting anybody.
Viruthasalam and Semiyon(A.E.Manoharan)
A.E.Manoharan is a good friend of mine even before he became a pop singer. In 1972, he came back from India after studies and joined Radio Ceylon as a Tamil Drama Producer and the first drama he wrote and produced is titled "Sarukkal" in which myself and Rajeswary Shanmugam acted as leading pair. While at Radio Ceylon. He recorded several pop songs and became "Pop Chakaravarthi". He had his mind set on acting in South Indian films and always worked towards it. This he confided to me while acting in Vadai Katru. Although I don't agree with him in the style of his acting, 100% South Indian acting style, he remains a good friend until now. He was polite to the Director and nice to everybody in the crew. He must have left SriLanka after 1977 and according to Dhool.com, got a chance to act in "Mankudi Minor" with the help of a Ceylon-born Director V.C.Kuganathan.
Semiyon (Manoharan) and Philomina (Chandrakala) are lovers separated by her family's animosity towards Semiyon due to an incident happened previous year. But they meet again in secret. Some of their scenes were shot in different locations other than Pesalai. In Kallundai Veli (Jaffna), there was an emotional scene of their separation, and there were some Indian tourists among the crowd and they applauded and appreciated Manoharan's acting. A duet song of them was picturised in Vallipuram Temple beach.
Semiyon(Manoharan) and Philomina(Chandrakala)
Other than Kallundai Veli, and Vallipuram Beach, many scenes were taken in Jaffna, in "Kakkai Theevu", "Thunaivi" in Vaddukoddai and in Kallundai Cemetery closer to famous "Valukki Aru" ( this river is actually a canal getting filled up during Jaffna rainy season from many ponds in Alaveddi, Kantharodai etc). As a coincidence, this "Valukki Aru" is immortalized in another novel by Sengai Aliyan, " Vazhi Vazhi Valukkiyaru". (Thanks to Kanagasabapathi Sir for enlightning me on "Valukki Aru" )
Viruthasalam and Shanmugam (K.A.Jawahar)
Famous actor of stage and films in Colombo, K.A.Jawahar acted as "Sudalai Shanmugam" and many scenes involving Viruthasalam and others with Sudalai Shanmugam were taken at Kallundai Cemetery. Watching the movie, many of the viewers would not have noticed some interesting aspects of film making. The shot of Nagammah and Philomina pointing at Sudalai Shanmugam and talking about him was taken in Pesalai. The shot of Shanmugam looking at them and singing "Manmatha Leelaiyai" was taken at Kallundai, Jaffna. Similarly, those girls leave with pots to fetch water from Pesalai and end up near the well in Kallundai. These continuation shots were taken months apart, but the Assistant director had to note every item they were wearing, the color of the costume etc. This is to maintain continuity. I remember in Gemini productions' (a big production company of those days) "Vanji Kottai Valipan", Gemini Ganeshan jumps into the sea with a nicely trimmed moustache and it was not there when he was swimming. Clean shaven face.. When he finally gets out of sea, moustache is there again on his face.
Talking about continuity, an interesting episode I would like to share with you. As I mentioned in my earlier paragraph, Philomena and Nagamma are leaving to fetch water in Pesalai. It is an unwritten rule that we should not use any borrowed item or dresses for shooting. Our producer trying to cut down expenses, borrowed even those pots from the local villagers. I told Siva to buy those pots from the owners. He said we can find them in Jaffna. Those are silver coated pots. When we wanted to do the continuation in Kallundai, all the artites, crew waited for half day to get some clay pots painted with silver coat. Half day production expenses are many times more than the price of those pots. Time and money wasted, just because we used some borrowed pots in the first instance.
During the shooting and post shooting, I learned a lot in the capacity of Assistant director from Premanath Moraes, A.V.M.Vasagam and editor Ramanathan. A leading editor of Sinhala cinema at present, Elmo Halliday worked as Associate editor to Mr.Ramanathan in our film and became my good friend, which paved way for me to act in English films too with his referral.
The title song in "Vaadai Katru" written by Eelathu Rathinam became very popular even before the film was received. Music was by unassuming genius T.F.Latif Master and there were three songs all recorded at Ceylon Studios, Narahenpita. In 1995, when I went to Calgary for a program, a young person got to the stage and sang "Vaadai katru veesukinra Kalaththilae" in my honor. I was almost moved to tears by that beautiful song. This song was sung by Joseph Rajendran and group and recently I read in web that this song was credited to A.M. Rajah. No.. It's Joseph Rajendran from Radio Ceylon.
Listen to that memorable song in eSnips
There were two other songs, one song is the duet sung by Muththalagu and Sujatha Attanayake and another sad solo by Sujatha Attanayake. All the songs were recorded at Ceylon Studios at Narahenpita. We the main group, spent the whole night at the studio for the Re-recording and recording of the songs. Very interesting when the creation of a song is done adding piece by piece.
Once the songs are ready, I went and met Mr.Hettiarachi of Visakamals, Pettah, Colombo and requested him to release "Vadai Katru" songs as a small disc. Knowing it may not pay him back the cost, just to encourage local film industry, he agreed. That disc was put out on sale. Unfortunately, I don't have a single disc with me now.
When we went back to Pesalai for the second schedule, the reception was not that good, villagers just behaved as responding to some regular visitors. Even the hut on the coast that we used as Ponnu's house is no longer there. So we came back to Colombo and with the help of our Art Director erected an exact replica of that hut inside Ceylon Studios. There we shot some sequences involving Viruthasalam, Ponnu, Nagammah and Philomina.
An interesting scene with A famous actor and VilluPaddu Singer Ladis Veeramani as Poosari conducting devil chase (Yes..Devil) also was shot inside the studio. With the songs and action he made it very real. Ladis Veeramani who made "Kanmaniyal Kathai" >- a prose poetry by Famous Poet Mahakavi (Uruthiramoorthy) well known by performing on Villu Paddu (The Tamil way of reciting stories while singing songs and playing a musical instrument in the form of a bow - called 'Villu'). I had a chance to see one of those performances of Laddis in Batticaloa. With the rhythm and melody in those songs, with his tenor voice and narration of the story, he held the audience spellbound.
According to the story, during the village temple festivel, lot of things happen. Mariyadas' Vaadi was set on fire. Philomina was getting killed. Viruthasalam avenges her death. So for the Thiruvizha (Festivel) shooting, a real festivel with Pongal and Sathir dances were arranged and shot in Sivathasan's native place, Kurumbasiddy. But later on, for some reason Sivathasan wanted to delete those dancing shots and had Vel Ananthan and Malini Wijendra to dance in the scene shot inside Ceylon studios. But still I feel we should have kept those dances of Sinna Melam (temple dancers), because it would have been more authentic.
Myself, Ramanathan (Editor) and Elmo Halliday (Associate Editor) toiled for 13 nights and 13 days to edit the film. While we were doing that in 1977, outside the Communal riots have started and came closer to Ceylon Studios too in Narahenpita. As we had enough food provisions in the studio canteen forgetting about the outside turmoil, we went along with the editing. Except for some Sinhala Actors, nobody came to the studio during that time.
Vadai Katru was released in 1978 and was shown in Jaffna at Rani Theatre.